When I see the words "alleged" or "the suspect" in newspaper articles about a crime, I always think how proper that is. After all, in our system a person is considered innocent until found guilty by a jury of peers. When I have seen it in articles about the shooting at our Knoxville church, though, it seems wrong somehow. There were hundreds of witnesses who saw Jim David Adkisson aim and shoot his sawed-off shotgun, killing two people and wounding six more. They heard him shouting out his hatred, saw his victims fall, watched his immobilization and his being led away by the police officers. There is no question that he did it. There is even little question of why. He hated liberals, blaming them for the failures of his own life, and turned that hatred to violence.
He thought he knew what his target was. Eight years before he had been divorced from his wife who had been active in Unitarian Universalist Women in Religion organizations, and though he didn't go to church much he had been several times to the Southeast Summer Institute. He made the error of confusing liberal religion with liberal politics. It's an easy mistake to make. There is a statistical correlation between liberal reli-gion and liberal politics, but it is by no means one to one. We have many political conservatives in this congregation and it is painful to many of us to hear some of our own members talk as if we are merely the religious wing of the Democratic Party.
However, as liberal religionists there are some few things that we do affirm that have some political consequences. It is our conviction that people should be judged on the basis of their characters rather than their color, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation or any other irrelevant characteristic. We are committed to freedom and human moral responsibility and must struggle against the oppression both of individuals and groups. This is our faith and thus, in a sense, our politics. His perception of this distorted by the ravings of the hate-filled radicals he read and listened to and twisted by his own depression and instability drove Adkisson to this tragic violence. Worst of all it was an intergenerational service he invaded and many of the horrified witnesses were little children.
No wonder that mixed with the sorrow and the horror that we felt when we heard of this tragedy was fear. We, too, are Unitarian Universalists. We, too, hold these values as sacred. We, too, could sometimes be the target of this irrational generalized hatred of liberals. We, too, are vulnerable, with open doors, welcoming the stranger at our gates. Well, that's a figure of speech, of course. We don't even have gates. It is no wonder, then, that one of the first things we might do is try to think how we can protect ourselves from such a terrible event in our own sanctuary. But at what cost?
It is important to remember when thinking about this, even when factoring in the possibility of copycat criminals, that the likelihood of its happening here is miniscule to nonexistent. Jim David Adkissons are seldom met with. It is also true that a determined killer with no regard for his or her own survival is almost impossible to guard against. Life can never be wholly risk-free -not for us, nor can we make it so for our children. I don't think anyone has gone so far as to suggest that we install metal detectors at our doors or search purses and packages. It has been suggested that we hire security guards either in or out of uniform. These ideas would be costly, but what would the cost be to our soul?
I knew a bunker church in Mississippi. They had every excuse. Their building was bombed and their minister shot during the Civil Rights era of the 60s. Members of the congregation received death threats for years afterward. Their building had a feature-less frontage with only one entrance and they kept as low a profile as they could in the community, not entirely ending their work for social justice but not ever doing it in the name of the church. They shrank in size, never again being able to afford a full-time minister, and they became inward-looking, perceiving themselves as a haven of safety, protecting themselves from the threat of the hate-filled community around them. I loved quite a few of their members and preached there annually for many years, but it never felt anything but gloomy, self-absorbed, anxious. It was difficult to make less fearful people feel really welcome there. The congregation's story was one of fear and marginalization.
Even the church I served in New Orleans which was built soon after the other church's minister's house was bombed looked very much like that. There were no windows in the front and there were heavy iron gates across the entry to the patio around which it was built. When I came there, it, too, had a sense of itself as an embattled minority in a hostile environment. Although the gates had long been replaced with glass doors and windows and the congregation had begun to open its hearts and hands to the community, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina which destroyed the building and devastated the congregation may ultimately have been a blessing, forcing them out into the open air of love and hospitality.
We worry most, of course, about our children. How can we be justified in leaving un-done anything that will protect our children from any endangerment, including that to their psyches that the Knoxville children suffered when they witnessed the attack on their congregation? Yet not only is it true that we cannot eliminate every risk, we should not. Part of what they must learn is how to live in a world that has its fearful moments as well as its beauties. One of the readings I always use in a baby-naming ceremony admonishes parents to prepare their children for a world in which there are dangers and betrayals as well as love and joy. It is good advice.
I live in a gated community - to my shame. It is no more than half a mile at the worst to the house farthest from the gate. It always makes me sad when I leave or come home when a school bus is due to see the myriad of cars parked waiting to pick up the kids and drive them that little way to protect them from the nonexistent dangers of the single road from the gate to their door. We worry about our children's obesity from lack of exercise. I worry more about our not allowing them to exercise their intelligence, their fortitude, their independence. We have allowed the immediate awareness of any danger to any child anywhere that the media have given us to frighten us into crippling our children.
Years ago when my children were still small - or at least dependent - I gave a Mother's Day sermon in which I said that motherhood was the process of letting go. I used as an illustration the fact that although I am myself neurotically fearful of heights I never tried to keep my children from climbing trees, exercising not only their muscles but their bravery and independence. I could never actually bring myself to admire their agility in person, however. That very evening my youngest fell out of a tree and broke his arm. When he came in and showed it to me and calmly informed me that this time I was going to have to take him to the hospital, my first response was to tell him that his timing was atrocious, as indeed it was. However, it only kept him from climbing for a few weeks, and it changed neither my opinion nor, admittedly, my fear. We cannot keep them in cocoons or plastic bubbles. Their characters as well as their bodies must be allowed to grow and develop. We must even allow them to risk horror. How, after all, could the Knoxville children have been protected from that terrible experience? Only by keeping them at home, keeping them from participating in the joyful intergenerational performance of a version of the musical Annie on Sunday morning in church.
We are not entirely heedless. We do have an evacuation plan which includes a meeting place for parents and children and plans to practice it. It will have to include some readjustment in light of our construction, but it isn't something we do not and have not thought about. There are many doors to the outside and all of them are breakout doors so that no one need be trapped in the building. We will be checking to make sure that our first aid kit is adequate. There was even one suggestion at the board meeting when we were talking about this issue that I really liked, though not for reasons of safety. It was that certain people would be designated simply to pay attention to what was going on, who our visitors are and where they are. I've been trying to get us to do that forever. Every single one of us should consider ourselves especially designated to notice, to greet and meet and talk to those whom we have not met. We are called not to safety but to radical hospitality. We often have business to do on Sunday morning or friends to meet, threads of connection to reweave, many things that lead us inward. All those things are good but we all also need to take some time to look around us at others who are not yet a part of that web of community and make them welcome.
The events in Knoxville have not made us more vulnerable. We have always been vulnerable. Life is not safe. It is less safe when we take risks and dare going out on a limb whether it be climbing a tree or taking an unpopular stand for justice. Yet if we refuse to dare for the sake of safety our souls wither. If we adopt the bunker mentality, see ourselves as potential victims, surround ourselves with protective measures, we become pitiful.
There has been too much of that in our society of late ever since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. People are kept on high alert, being warned every time they enter an airport that the terrorism potential is at next to the highest level, willingly giving up their most cherished freedoms to keep their physical bodies safe, accepting the excuse of the threat of terrorism to condone torture, to give up their privacy, to severely limit their lives. We must not allow that to happen to us.
I don't know what ordination certificates say now, but when I was ordained it was into the ministry of liberal religion. Liberal. One accusation that Jim David Adkisson hurled when he began spraying bullets that Sunday on that peaceful congregation in Knoxville was absolutely true. We are indeed religious liberals. That is our pride, something to be boasted of, gloried in, offered as a great gift to our community - to our world. If we begin to live in an atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion that gift cannot be either given nor accepted. Those who come seeking a community in which they can freely search for truth and live out their discoveries in their lives will feel the fear that haunts us and recognize any suspicion that alienates them from us. They will know they are not truly welcome.
We must not allow ourselves to fall into that trap of fear which feeds upon itself. Free religion takes great courage. A responsibility to your own conscience rather than relying on the findings of others is a scary thing at the best of times. Now, perhaps, it will take more courage than ever since one of our congregations was made a target for standing for those same things for which we stand. We must take the risk, both for ourselves and for those we love.
This sanctuary has always been a safe place for the adventure of the spirit, as liberal religion teaches us to revere our traditions but be always open to new thoughts, new ideas, new ways of being. It has been safe, too, from the violence of hatred. May it ever be so, but may we never desert the path of high adventure or for a moment do less than fling wide our doors to welcome those who would wish to join us on our journey toward new truth and justice because of fear. May we gird ourselves with courage - and may nothing evil cross this door.